Predicting Mudslides Could Save Many Lives

A research team has created a prototype warning system that is impressing the emergency management community.

Scientists from several partner agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., have developed a prototype warning system to determine the probability of mudslides, also known as debris flows -- a development that could save many lives annually.

"Important science and technological advances suggest the time is right to develop an operational warning system," said Jayme Laber, a National Weather Service hydrologist. "With more detailed and accurate weather and hydrological forecasts available, the opportunity for a formal, operational debris-flow forecast warning system seemed evident."

According to NOAA, from 25 to 50 deaths annually in the United States result from mudslides. Monetary losses top $2 billion annually. Work by a team of geologists, hydrologists, and meteorologists began in 2005 as they chose recently burned areas in Burbank, Calif., for a three-year study. They developed a warning system that could provide hours of warning of the conditions that contribute to mudslides.

"Resulting data from the prototype has been received enthusiastically by the emergency management community," said David Jorgensen, a NOAA research meteorologist. "This system has provided valuable information to emergency managers in communities affected by forest fires and has emergency managers in other parts of the country requesting extension of the system to include their communities."

The system is designed to work in areas damaged by fires, but it could be expanded nationally to include areas that have not been burned, according to NOAA's report.

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